There’s no doubt that McMurtry’s best work stands next to his fellow Texan’s, Michener’s, as some of the best storytelling and writing in American letters over the last half of the 20th century. All of us grew up watching the Oscar-winning (Best Picture, Best Actress (MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Director (Brooks)) film. That’s great, the fact that McMurtry’s work received even wider acclaim. But the notoriety of the movie and its success creates a problem, at least for this reader. Shirley MacLaine, more than even Nicholson, is the most memorable character in the film because of her great performance. So when reading the book forty years later, trying to get MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway out of my head and allow McMurtry’s prose to fully form the story’s iconic protagonist became an issue, though, in the end, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this domestic drama.
Set in Texas, the plot and setting and every other character in this morality play take a back seat to Aurora. She is a force of both nature and privilege; a woman hell-bent on charting her own course. In the process of telling her story, and the story of her daughter Emma, the author has created a classic female leading character that won’t be forgotten whether it’s due to MacLaine’s performance on film or the imagery created by the novelist’s words. The novel is stunningly brilliant with one exception.
Whereas, at least in memory (spoiler alert), the affliction that brings Debra Winger’s Emma to her final climactic scenes in the movie captures a larger role on film and, if my memory serves me, propels the plot, in the book. McMurtry introduces Emma’s illness near the end of the lengthy novel, making it seem like the author couldn’t quite figure out how to bring the story to a close. It’s still a beautiful, tortured portrayal of mother and daughter but this one small thing, in my mind, keeps the book from being on the level of perfection attained by McMurtry in Lonesome Dove. That book. to my mind, is indeed flawless in every way.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. If your book club hasn’t read it, it should!